What is the Future of Watch Retail?
By A Collected Man
The purchase of a watch can be a big moment in our lives. Whether it’s marking a special occasion or filling a hole in our collection, it is often loaded with emotions and expectations. The medium we go through to buy our watches has changed drastically over the last five years. As e-commerce has risen sharply, large retailers are transforming their approach to clients and mono-brand boutiques seem to be appearing in every major city.
The retail side of watches is not often talked about beyond the mention of a new store opening or the historic double-signed watches that captivate collectors. However, as it can often be the first point of contact that people have with a brand or a specific watch, we wanted to look at what the landscape is like today, now we seem to be on the other side of a global pandemic. We will also explore what it might look like in a few years’ time.
There are a lot of different aspects to look at in the retail watch market in order to gain a more complete picture. With online becoming a genuine alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar stores, multi-brand retailers having to contend with brands opening their own boutiques, and the ever-changing face of authorised retailers across the market, there is a lot more to consider than Swiss export figures and waiting-list times.
The State of the Current Market
Taking the temperature of watch retail is not an easy task. There are many different facets to this industry and there are multiple different reports from which data can be pulled. There are plenty of opinions swirling around about this market, whether it is from a disgruntled consumer who struggled to deal with a member of staff in store, or from the brand owners who are considering putting more emphasis on their direct-to-consumer (DTC) model.
Given how far back the retail industry goes in the watch world, and how deeply it is rooted to its core, it makes sense that there are plenty of strong opinions around it. Rob Corder, Co-founder and Editor of WatchPro, has a very positive outlook: “I think retail has never been in better health,” he says. Corder makes the link between the watch market in general being at record highs and then assumes that by extension retail must be doing equally well as “they have to be buying them from somewhere”. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), Swiss watch exports were up in 2021 when compared with 2019, showing that there was a real hunger for watches around the world after the pandemic.
When we pose the same question to Jacopo Corvo, owner of GMT Italia, a multi-brand retailer based in Milan that specialises in independent watchmaking, he has a slightly more conservative view on things. “We are still recovering from Covid,” he admits. As someone who runs a store in a tourist hotspot like Milan, it is understandable that a significant portion of their revenue used to come from travellers. “We are starting to grow in local sales, but having events like Milan Design Week certainly helped.”
The disparity between these two points of view shows that the export figures, which many in the press cling to as the indicator for industry health, don’t paint a complete picture. You only need to look back to 2018 when Richemont bought back hundreds of millions of pounds worth of Cartier watches that had been sitting in retailers, having not sold. It is believed this strategy helps stop pieces ending up on the grey market, where they would be sold at a discount, devaluing the brand’s image. However, all of the watches they bought back would have been listed in that year’s export figures and none of them would have reached the final consumer.
While there are positive signs from various corners of the industry, it is always worth exercising a modest amount of caution as global economics seem uncertain right now, and it is still unclear what effect this might have on the retail market.
Online vs Bricks-and-Mortar
The single space that has probably seen the biggest change over the last five to 10 years in watch retail has undoubtedly been online sales. It is often said that the watch industry is a slow one to react, and the adoption of e-commerce is a prime example of this glacial pace.
It was likely the retailers who were the first to put watches online, although it certainly wouldn’t have been without some level of pushback from the brands. We spoke with Louis Westphalen, the head of digital engagement and e-commerce at Breitling, who shed some light on how reluctant brands were to move online. “When I was still working at Hodinkee, we had brands tell us they would never sell online,” he says. Things have clearly changed drastically since then, although today you still can’t buy a Rolex at retail online.
It wouldn’t take long for brands to realise that not only were their consumers willing to buy from them online, there was an active hunger for it. Just as we outlined in our early days of watch collecting article, there has always been a hesitancy towards the online world in this industry, with forum pioneers being banned from trade fairs, and brand CEOs not wanting to offer an e-commerce alternative for their customers.
Even as recently as November 2021, articles were being published to highlight the slow adoption of online sales in the watch industry. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) the proportion of retail sales completed online is on the rise, reaching 26.6 percent as of May this year. These numbers represent a sustained growth from 19.9% February 2020, or pre-pandemic.
To get a sense of how these wider retail figures translate to the watch world, we spoke with Brian Duffy, CEO of Watches of Switzerland Group, who spoke about how their online platforms are performing in comparison to the entire company. “We had £85m [worth] of online sales in the fiscal year of 2021, which is up 205 percent on the previous year,” he says. The £85m figure, however, sits in contrast to the total revenue of the company, which reached £905.1m over the same period. While in the rest of the retail space, more than a quarter of sales happen online, the largest watch retailer in the country is still not at 10 percent.
As a side note, these numbers seem to have even more potential for growth when you consider the data put forward by Business of Fashion and McKinsey in their State of Fashion: Watches & Jewellery report. Here they predict the number of pre-owned watch sales taking place online to be as high as 45 percent by 2025. While this is not hard data and is instead gathered from McKinsey’s research and interviews with industry professionals, it suggests that people are willing to buy watches online.
A key point to note here is that Watches of Switzerland do not offer Rolex, Patek Philippe, or Audemars Piguet online. These three likely represent three of their top earning brands and to not offer them online might seem like limiting their revenue streams, but as their most popular models have waiting lists longer than can be fulfilled, it’s clear they don’t need to offer them online.
During the pandemic, everything changed in the retail space. Watches of Switzerland were quick to react by placing their shop-floor staff on the phones and in front of webcams to create what they called a “virtual boutique”. According to Duffy, this not only helped to keep their customers engaged but it also ensured their staff could keep working and kept the group in the black through the pandemic.
Before Westphalen started his current role at Breitling, he was head of e-commerce at Hodinkee. “When I joined [Hodinkee], they were only selling straps,” he says, “and with the team we deployed accessories – the tools and books and so on. Eventually we added vintage watches which did very well, then we moved on to modern watches provided by the brands. I basically left the day they launched because I had this compelling offer from Breitling to start digital marketing and e-Commerce from scratch.”
When Westphalen joined Breitling in late 2017, their e-commerce experience was nowhere to be seen. “They didn’t even have a product page on the website,” Westphalen tells us with a hint of disbelief.
After fully revamping the website for Baselworld 2017, Breitling launched their e-commerce platforms in November 2018 starting with the two most promising markets, the United States and China. In the following quarter five key markets followed (UK, France, Germany, Australia, and Japan), and when the pandemic hit, as Westphalen puts it, “we knew it was time to accelerate full speed” achieving a total coverage of 40 countries in just three additional months.
An interesting trend that Westphalen highlighted is that Breitling’s online sales seem to do extremely well in cities where they have boutiques. Clients will either pop into the boutique, try on the watch and then complete the purchase online, or use their click-and-collect service to pick the watch up in store. Online retail does not seem to be taking sales away from their in-person offering.
While this online space is clearly important, the cornerstone of nearly all watch retailers’ business is their brick-and-mortar shops. Duffy explains what Watches of Switzerland are doing to help innovate on this front. “We have brought in some consulting from the hospitality sector, namely Ritz-Carlton, to help develop a system that helps us reach a higher level of service,” he says. “Many of our sales today are done through appointments, so [we try to] understand why this person is coming in by calling them beforehand and having a discussion. For example, if someone is bringing their son in to [choose] a watch for [his] graduation, we can have a little graduation card waiting for them when they arrive. That sort of thing.”
While the numbers seem to be on the rise for e-commerce in the watch industry, it still has a long way to go; the majority of sales are still happening face to face. This is understandable, as historically buyers have tended to gravitate towards being able to touch the watch and try it on before making a purchase. Even Duffy admits that he “will always tell people that you need to try a watch on before you buy. Feel it in your hands, figure out what size is just right for you.” This might explain why Watches of Switzerland now controls 171 stores across the UK and the US, and have their sights set on Europe this year.
Of course, this is in the microcosm of the British retail market (and some of the US, as Watches of Switzerland expands), with some variance in trends and behaviours to be expected as you look globally. While there are often a lot of similarities between the American and European markets’ behaviour, there are large differences in Asia, and more specifically China. With platforms such as Tmall dominating the e-commerce space, brands are forced to adjust to the structure of the Chinese market, and often their success depends on how quickly they can adopt these systems. The Chinese e-commerce industry has been the biggest in the world since 2013 and today it accounts for more than 40% of online transactions. As Westphalen puts it, “as a brand you can’t succeed in China without being very consistent and forward-looking in your digital strategy, starting with targeting the right audience on the right platforms for your digital marketing and your owned e-Commerce.”
Mono-brand vs Multi-brand
The world of watch shops is an old and complex one, and in the last few years we have seen the latest twist in this tale emerging. Brands are looking to take more control of the customer experience by moving out of the traditional multi-brand retailers and establishing their own mono-brand boutiques in their key markets. Not only are these mono-brand boutiques becoming a more and more common sight, but they are taking on different forms to meet the apparent market demands.
The most drastic examples of this shift can be found in the new Audemars Piguet boutiques, AP House, the 13th of which opened this May. These new spaces seem to be a long way removed from the traditional watch shop with their rows of low display cases, packed with timepieces. Instead, there is hardly a watch in sight: the stores resemble a far more relaxed environment and entertainment space, designed for hosting intimate client dinners, larger events with live music, and one-to-one consultations. While many of us have been to events held in boutiques before, it is a very different experience when the space is not divided by display cases.
Each of the 13 locations has been designed individually to reflect its local surroundings, whether it is in the Meatpacking District of New York City or beside the sunny beaches of St Barths. Many of them will also have very discreet entrances. Take the one on Bond Street in London, for example: flanked by traditional watch boutiques on either side, its entrance is marked by a small plaque and a flag above the door. The actual space is located on the first floor, with nothing to show on the ground floor – a touch that only adds to the sense of exclusivity.
Something that is interesting to note about these new boutiques from Audemars Piguet is that not all of them are wholly controlled by the brand. Some of them are managed by local retailers; for example, a recent article in Quill & Pad noted that the St Barths store appeared to be run by local jeweller Diamond Genesis. This is not a new technique for brands to employ – many mono-brand boutiques are operated by retailers, from the A. Lange & Söhne store on Bond Street in London that is operated by Wempe to the Patek Philippe boutique in the Miami Design District that is run by the Govberg family. By using this structure, the brand gets its own dedicated space, with no need to sit next to another brand’s models and messaging, without having to take on the responsibility of building and maintaining a client list.
These “halfway-house” boutiques are starting to become more popular as retailers seem to enjoy the benefits of being able to promote one brand while having a lot of control over the day-to-day running of the store. A brand that is starting to move away from their retail partners in specific markets is F.P. Journe. Known as the biggest of the independents and the smallest of the brands, they have an impressive retail network across the world, with their first boutique in Tokyo set to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2024. For an independent brand, F.P. Journe have a surprisingly mature network through which to sell their watches.
We spoke with Pierre Halimi, president of F.P. Journe North America, who reveals that “[Journe] pulled out of all of its retailers in America at the beginning of this year”, deciding instead to focus on the three boutiques that they have in the country, in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York. “This is because we have a growing demand but we do not plan to increase production, so we had to do something,” he says, adding that they are hoping to open a boutique in London at some point in the future.
F.P. Journe have not pulled out of all of their other retailer partners, and Halimi points out that those they continue to work with are true partners of the brand, such as The Hour Glass in Singapore or GMT Italia in Milan. Having these retailers in locations such as these not only help F.P. Journe sell watches in these markets, but they help raise awareness for a brand that would otherwise get very little exposure outside of its core group of followers.
Corvo tells us that being placed in smaller, more focused retailers allows a brand to get a better quality of exposure from staff who are likely to be far more well informed about the details of these intricate timepieces.
Retailers such as GMT Italia are products of the recent boom in independent watchmaking, and likely would not exist in the form they do today without it. Being able to take the passion that was originally born on the forums and bring it into a real-world scenario make these an incredibly attractive option for many of these smaller, younger, ambitious brands. As a result of the relationships they build with these watchmakers, they can offer access like nowhere else.
“We often host these watchmakers, and invite clients to meet them, have dinner with them,” says Corvo. “We are also able to help walk them through unique commissions, acting as a middleman between the client and the watchmaker.” This not only takes some of the workload off these small independent makers, but also gives the client someone local to them, who specialises in customer service, to deal with in these often lengthy processes.
Halimi gave us an insight into what that relationship is like from the other side. “It is quite a hands-on relationship,” he explains. “While they do bring in new clients, we still like to meet with them and talk with them. Of course, we are very concerned about the ‘flippers’ of this world and so we have a very formal vetting process. We do that whether it is through the retailers or the boutiques.”
Sitting in stark contrast to these small makers is the biggest watch company in the world, Rolex. They still operate through the traditional distributor and retail network that they have used for decades. Given the incredible output that this company has, and the insatiable global appetite there is for their watches, using retailers appears to be the only way they are able to get their watches out efficiently. Their most popular models have notoriously long waiting lists, so having them controlled by retailers likely takes a lot of strain off the brand themselves. However, historically, relying on this type of network has meant a lot of trust. As the grey market can be a real danger for the brands, having their models sell for below the retail price devalues the brand’s reputation and can take money out of their pocket.
The New Face of Authorised Retailers
Watch retailers have been around for more than a century now, but they look somewhat different today. Tiffany & Co and Beyer Chronometrie are two traditional retailers within this space, both with historic ties to many of the largest brands in the market today, and respected names in their own right. However, you no longer need to be a family business going back generations to become an authorised retailer – in fact, you don’t even need to be a shop.
Media platforms have begun to leverage their position in the industry to open other revenue streams by becoming authorised retailers and offering new watches to their followers. The main examples are Hodinkee and Revolution, which have built e-commerce platforms that sit alongside their original content; they have gone from just having brands as advertisers to partnering with them to sell their watches. As Westphalen told us above, he was there just as Hodinkee began to offer new watches on their site, and now this has become a major part of their business, collaborating with numerous brands on limited editions. If you hover over the brand section on their shop front, they list a total 58 different brands which they sell. Some of these, such as F.P. Journe, are only offered as pre-owned models, but the sheer number they have accumulated is impressive in itself.
Westphalen now has experience on the other side of this deal, as Hodinkee sells Breitling watches through their shop. “Whenever we’re dealing with guys like [Hodinkee],” he says, on what it is like working with a media company that is also a retailer, “they always have a super-high standard when it comes to assets. And rightly so, as that is a massive part of their business both in selling watches and writing articles.”
What could almost be seen as a reaction to these content platforms offering watches at retail, established retailers are now offering content, alongside the print magazine Calibre that Watches of Switzerland introduced in 2007, they now produce a podcast series. Even smaller retailers are making content; Corvo presents a regular video series called Speakeasy. It seems these hybrid formulae are being adopted across the industry. Of course, we cannot talk about this without being self-aware of our own efforts in content. Many of the companies we have mentioned here use their content platforms to directly advertise their own stock, as has become the norm across nearly all e-commerce. We take a slightly different approach, never linking to any products we sell in our articles, keeping them clear of any commercial activity.
Before he became president of North America at F.P. Journe, Halimi ran a retailer that specialised in independent watches. He started carrying pieces from the members of the Académie Horlogère des Créateurs Indépendants (AHCI) back in 1987 and says the biggest difference between then and now in the customers that he speaks to is the internet. “We don’t have customers coming into our store who don’t know who we are – it just doesn’t happen anymore,” he says. “Before, someone would come in and ask, ‘Who is this F.P. Journe?’ and you would have a discussion with them. Now they are coming in and asking questions about the smallest of details.”
This level of knowledge in the market has forced retailers to adopt these new tactics such as online content. It’s no longer enough just to have the watches in stock; you need to be able to become an educator at the same time. Now that the audience is global, there are even more opportunities to demonstrate knowledge of this niche market.
Nevertheless, the traditional retailers in this space manage to still hold prominent positions. While having double-signed examples is very much the exception to the rule today, brands are still willing to collaborate with these retailers on limited editions. Take for example the substantial Bucherer Blue line which has now reached 16 brands in total. This type of collaboration is far more common than the co-branding that is so prized in today’s secondary market. However, if you compare this to the number of brands Hodinkee have collaborated with, according to their website, it almost pales in comparison. By our count, on the Limited Editions page on the Hodinkee shop site, they have collaborated with 28 different brands since first launching retail watches on e-commerce in 2017.
It is clear that the world of authorised retailers is changing. It is possibly changing faster than the watch world at large, and that should come as no surprise. While the watch brands are able to almost exist in a Swiss vacuum, the retailers are more exposed to the public and their ever-changing demands. As they are required to keep pace with the rest of the retail and now hospitality spaces, any retailer must stay connected to what consumers want and what they will want in the future.
Watchmaking may take a long time to change, but we are witnessing rapid shifts in the retail market at the moment. While it will never leave its roots in face-to-face interactions and physical stores, the move online cannot be ignored any longer. Even if a brand doesn’t sell any watches through a traditional e-commerce platform, they will certainly have an online presence. With retailers such as Watches of Switzerland offering a “virtual boutique” and smaller stores such as GMT Italia producing videos such as their Speakeasy series, retailers are making the most of their online spaces. Whether they will move into Web3 with the same gusto is yet to be discovered.
One trend that looks set to continue though is the transformation of stores and boutiques to incorporate more characteristics of the hospitality world. AP House is the most obvious example, proving that a watch shop doesn’t need to look like one. It will be interesting to see if other brands and even retailers adopt similar approaches.
Media companies offering watches as authorised retailers could almost seem like a natural commodification of their content as their business strategies grew. While some seemed uncomfortable with the idea at first, it seems to have become a key player in the market. Where this will go next however, is hard to tell.
One thing is for certain: the watch retail space continues to be an exciting and innovative sector in our industry. As one of the most interconnected parts of the watch world, it will always feel the exterior pressures of trends and fashions before those in Jura mountains will. Using retail as a canary in the mine can be useful, but as more brands move towards a DTC model, it might become less and less accurate.
We would like to thank Rob Corder, Brian Duffy, Jacopo Corvo and Pierre Halimi for sharing their thoughts with us on the future of watch retail.